By Renée Hartleib |
While her friends were tuning into CSI, Meaghan Huculak grew up watching TLC’s Cold Cases. “I’ve always been fascinated by forensic science and wanted to see real life stories of how science was used to solve crimes,” says the Saint Mary’s grad.
That desire is what led the Ajax, Ontario native to major in Forensic Science and specialize in Physical Anthropology at the University of Toronto (U of T), where she earned an Honours BSc. It didn’t take her long to figure out that forensic anthropology—the study of found human skeletal remains to assist with establishing identity—was where it was at.
Working as a Forensic Anthropologist meant obtaining at least a Masters degree, and because Huculak is a bit of a homebody, she originally only applied to programs in Ontario. But fate had other plans. It was while attending an anthropological conference in Banff—part of her undergraduate curriculum at U of T—that Huculak happened to sit at the same table as Dr. Tanya Peckmann, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of the Forensic Sciences Program at Saint Mary’s.
Huculak learned that Dr. Peckmann was also a Forensic Anthropologist and consultant for the Nova Scotia Medical Examiners Service. She also found out that Peckmann’s graduate students were working on active files. This compelled Huculak to apply. “I knew that the most important thing I could do for myself was to get hands-on experience in forensic anthropology,” she says. “Being able to go out into the field and apply what you read in textbooks at the Masters level is a phenomenal opportunity.” So phenomenal, in fact, that Huculak made the difficult decision to move away from home.
She wasn’t disappointed. “In terms of academics, the choice to go to Saint Mary’s was the best choice I made in my academic career.” The two-year program included a co-op experience working as a Forensic Anthropology Technician with the Nova Scotia Medical Examiners Service.
Whenever skeletonized human remains were found in the province, Huculak was on the scene working to fully document and recover the remains. She was then able to assist with determining the biological profile (age, sex, ancestry, stature, etc.) to help with the identification of the individual. “To actually be able to work with the police, and feel like you are helping provide closure for family members and friends who have lost loved ones is extremely rewarding.”
Huculak has gone on to have a career doing just that. For the last five years, she has worked as a Forensic Identification Assistant for the Integrated Forensic Identification Service of the RCMP in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. On a daily basis, she dusts for fingerprints, conducts comparisons of footwear impressions, and collects DNA for submission to the laboratory.
In addition, as a member of the Forensic Search and Evidence Recovery Team (FSERT), she works as a Forensic Anthropologist, helping to fully document and recover human remains found in the province of BC.
This past summer, she added a new certification that makes her work even more valuable. Huculak is the first civilian member of the RCMP to be certified as a Fingerprint Examiner. She can now be called as an expert witness in court cases.
As you can imagine, people are pretty fascinated by what she does for a living. Huculak, who loves teaching, often goes out to schools and fields lots of questions that have the words “morbid” or “gross” in them. “There are things you see that are disturbing for sure, but I have a deep interest in skeletal remains and a passion for helping people find closure.”
Turns out leaving home was a good move for Huculak who met her fiancé—a homicide detective—through her work in Maple Ridge. Together, they have just bought a house and are looking forward to having family come and visit them in BC.
But Nova Scotia continues to hold a special place in Huculak’s heart, too. Since graduating from Saint Mary’s in 2010, she has returned a number of times to give back to Dr. Peckmann’s current students. Drawing on both her education and extensive experience, Huculak created a forensic archaeology field-school course that teaches students how to fully document and recover human remains that are found in a clandestine burial setting.
She likes to share the good news with students that, although jobs in forensic science—and specifically forensic anthropology—are rare in Canada, they are attainable. “I absolutely love my work. To have a career in this field, and be able to say I’ve made it, is wonderful.”